For part 2 of my headache series, I asked my daughter and editorial consultant, Leigh Ann Hubbard, to write about her experiences with stretches for headaches. They’re a great survival-medicine tool: You can do them anywhere and with no equipment. (See part 1 of the headache series here.)
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When even four ibuprofen struggle to knock out your headaches, you’ve got issues, my friend.
That was my predicament a few months ago. I tried prevention: heading off my main headache trigger, blood-sugar lows. I considered prescription medicine. I tried dry needling with electrical stimulation. (You heard me.) And that … actually worked! And it’s what got me on the path toward stretches for headaches.
Dry needling with electrical stimulation, besides being a mouthful, is a physical therapy technique that involves sticking an acupuncture needle into “trigger points” in certain muscles, one at a time, Rebecca Story Dunbar, MPT, of Northgate Physical Therapy in Monument, CO, explained to me as she poked needles into my shoulders. Then the needle and its electrical current pulsate until the muscle fatigues. (It’s a wild sensation.) For my headaches, the targeted points were in the shoulder, neck and bottom of the skull.
That treatment staved off my headaches for about a month. And it got me thinking, if my headaches are so strongly influenced by my muscles, what other muscle-related remedies might there be?
So I did a little research. And lo and behold, I found my new, official, do-it-yourself fix: headache stretches.
How Stretches for Headaches Work
Basically, stretches stop a continuous loop of tightness and pain.
Headaches—whether migraine or tension-type—start from chemical imbalances in the nervous system, explains neurologist Dawn A. Marcus, MD, a professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Pittsburgh. “Pain signals are transmitted to the muscles in the neck, which become stiff and painful,” she says. The muscle pain increases nerve activation, which “perpetuates and aggravates” the headache, and you’ve got yourself a feedback loop of horror.
To stop the headache, you have to stop those transmissions, Dr. Marcus says. Reducing muscle pain is one way to do that. Methods include applying heat or cold, massaging, or … stretching!
Guidelines for Performing Headache Stretches
In her book The Women’s Migraine Toolkit,* Dr. Marcus, who’s an expert in headaches and chronic pain, recommends a set of stretches herself. To use them for prevention, she advises performing them twice daily for about 15 minutes per session. The stretches shouldn’t hurt.
You can also use stretches as treatment, which is what I do. For that to work, I have to perform them early on—when my headache is still in threatening mode. I know I’ve stretched enough when the pain is replaced with a kind of tickling sensation. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes. Faster than my pain pills!
Dr. Marcus emphasizes gentleness. “You need to make sure your stretches don’t overstretch muscles, which can aggravate stiffness and tenderness,” she says.
There are various techniques. Following are what work for me. In some cases, I’ve customized the stretches but have included links to their inspiration in case you’d like to see the originals.
(Note: Click here for signs your headache could be serious.)
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